Click here to download a pdf of this article

Quality Personified
Oregon’s RiverRidge Excavating and Logging survives and thrives  

Josh Blilie, head shovel operator for RiverRidge, and Carl Welle recently toured the Caterpillar plant in LaGrange, Ga, where Cat® FM swing machines, track feller bunchers, and wheel skidders are built, and track skidders are assembled. Above: Welle consults with Don Mannilo, operator of the Cat® 322C stroke processor.

Carl Welle

T
hese are tough times for loggers, but some are doing better than others. Carl Welle, who owns RiverRidge Excavating and Logging, Inc., in Walterville, Ore., is one of them. Business is steady, and the jobs come to him. He doesn’t have to spend his time on the phone looking for work. If you ask Welle why he’s been able to ride out the downturn so far, he says it’s the quality of the job his company does. “That’s the only thing I’m sure that is keeping us going.”

Paramedic Training
Welle started working in the woods in high school. After he graduated, he took jobs thinning small timber tracts and removing hazard trees around houses. He worked by himself, cutting by hand and dragging the trees out with a small rented track machine —while going to school to become a paramedic. One month short of finishing his training, he decided a logger’s life was what he really wanted.

RiverRidge now has 14 employees. At any point, Welle is managing up to four logging projects. “We’re pretty versatile with what we do — anything from tiny backyard jobs to 120-acre clearcuts,” he says. “Some guys won’t do anything but the great big jobs, where we tend to make good money on some of the smaller jobs.”

He cuts for private landowners and the mills. Rosboro Lumber Company, one of the largest privately owned U.S. forest products companies based in Oregon, is his primary customer, but he also cuts for Weyerhaeuser and others. He likes working for the mills, because it’s good consistent work.

About eight years ago, he added excavating to diversify, but logging accounts for 80% of the company’s revenue.

Equipment
These days, it’s very rare that Welle gets to run any of his 18 machines. “I would love to be out there with the guys, but I just don’t have the time. I have guys that do it well, and I just let them do it,” he says. “I actually got to load the trucks for a few weeks last summer. That was pretty fun. I enjoyed the heck out of that.”

Although he still buys some used equipment, about four years ago he started buying mostly new equipment because he decided he could make better money with new. He says productivity and uptime have improved, and landowners and mills like to see their contractors with new machines.

His latest acquisition, however, didn’t come easy. Last year he decided it was time to upgrade his track feller buncher. He demoed several machines, including a Cat® track feller buncher, the TK732. He didn’t buy it; it didn’t get the job done the way he wanted. Caterpillar took note of his requirements, listened to his suggestions, and made changes. After the second demo in January, Welle called his dealer, Peterson Machinery in Eugene, Ore, and said, “What did you do to this machine!” This one, he bought.

“After Cat did all the upgrades on it — the valving, the multi-functioning — the TK732 was above and beyond as far as traveling, swinging, cutting, and especially saw recovery time. And that is where you make your money. It’s not having to sit there and wait for your saw to speed back up,” Welle explains. “Time is money. It has to perform. Sure, I could cut down a great big tree with other feller bunchers I demoed, but then I’d have to wait for the saw to recover.”

He also reports that controlling the tree after it’s cut is not a problem with this machine. “I also like how it gets around, the maneuverability of the machine. It’s pretty steep up where we are working. The stability and the good sturdy cab are important.”

Making It Right
The brand and the dealer were also big factors in Welle’s purchase decision. “We own so many other Cat® machines, and we really haven’t had many problems,” he says.

You can have problems with any machine. “You have to think of your downtime. If you have a machine down for a few days, you’re talking thousands of dollars in downtime. And it’s not just that machine. One machine breaks down in the rotation, and I’ve got that downtime and downtime on the other three machines that follow it,” Welle says. “If my dealer says they’ll be there to help me out, and they’re not there, I’ve just lost 10,000 bucks. Boom, gone.”

Welle reports that he has a good relationship with the people in Peterson’s Eugene store. “If there is a problem, Peterson has the backing to figure it out and make it right. They make stuff happen. And that is what I want to see.”

Welle says his latest equipment purchase, a Cat® track feller buncher, is “above and beyond as far as traveling, swinging, cutting, and especially saw recovery time.”

Quality — What Sets them Apart
According to Welle, “quality” is what separates RiverRidge from the logging companies that aren’t doing as well. But what exactly does that mean? It means “taking care of the land, utilization of the timber, bucking logs to the correct lengths, and getting the sorts and the grades right.”

Welle explains that fulfilling the mills’ purchase orders to a tee means one tree could end up at three or four mills. “I might be able to get a log out of the butt cut of a tree for one mill, another log out of the second cut for another mill and then make a short log from the top to go to a third mill,” he says. “The mills deduct for unusable footage, so we get nothing for it when we might have sold it to another mill.”

Getting the sorts, grades, and lengths right might seem like a no-brainer if you want to stay in business, but Welle says not everyone takes the time to do it right. “They’ll just run it out to the longest log they can possibly make out of one tree, buck it off, and throw it in a pile instead of sorting the stuff correctly.”

In Welle’s operation, sorts are checked three or four times before the wood is loaded on a truck. Managing the sorts starts with the project supervisor. The shovel operator is also well aware of the sorts and will pull a log if the processor operator has made an error. And Welle checks sorts when he makes his rounds.

Yes, the sorts and the double-checking are time consuming, but it pays off in the end. “That’s why we’re still working,” Welle says.

A Different Perspective
His wife, Shari, who left her hospital job about a year ago to handle the administrative end of the business full time, has a different take on what quality means in their business. Based on her assessment, if they could bottle Welle’s personality, attitude, and people management skills, they could probably make a little extra income on the side.

“Carl is so mellow, so easy-going. He’s compassionate and patient. And that’s important for the guys because it is easy for them to communicate with him. When you treat your employees good, you are going to have a better outcome all around,” she says. Everyone works well together, and they take care of each other — and it’s paid off. Since the company was founded in 1993, there have been no injuries at all and turnover is very low.

Welle describes his Cat® machines, including this Cat® 325D operated by Kameron Foglio, as low maintenance.

Wrangling Fuel Costs
Quality work requires watching costs, and fuel is a big one. Welle contracts all his log hauling but shares in the fuel cost through a surcharge. To control the damage, he makes turnaround times faster by loading more efficiently.
 In the woods, he conserves on fuel in the forestry equipment by eliminating idling.

“We either shut them off, or we’re running them,” he says. “When my guys are in the machines, there’s not a lot of idle time. They’re working them to their max potential. The feller buncher is under load all the time — cutting or swinging or traveling.”

The new feller buncher burns 8-10 gallons an hour. “I was more focused on productivity than fuel consumption when I was deciding on which machine to buy. If a feller buncher burns an extra two gallons per hour and I get an extra 25 percent of production, I’ve way more than made up for it.”

Next Generation
As for the future, Welle knows the logging business is a big roller coaster. He’s in it for the whole ride but is content to keep his company about the same size. “It’s plenty big enough now.”

He has three stepsons who worked in the business for a while, but now are off on other ventures. He and Shari have another son, Jake, still at home. Welle says he would like to see his youngest son become a logger, but reveals his mellow, compassionate side in his answer: “If he decides to go into the business, great, I’ll back him 100 percent, but if he doesn’t, well, I’ll back him 100 percent on that too.”